From bad to worse? America’s eroding race relations

Originally Published in the FINAL CALL, APRIL 24, 2019


Charlottesville Protesters clash with white identity extremists August 12, 2017

A new report produced by the Pew Research Center reveals what many Blacks in America knew and what a majority of Americans now acknowledge: “that race relations are generally bad,” with many holding the belief that “the country hasn’t made enough progress toward racial equality.”

The study, “Race in America, 2019,” illustrates the deep fissures between Black and White Americans, as well as between Democrats and Republicans, stubborn racial animus and an unwillingness of many Whites to acknowledge the damage racism has caused, none of which bodes well for America or its future.

About 70 percent of Black people say race relations are terrible, with half saying they think it’s unlikely that Blacks will eventually have equal rights with Whites. Black people are particularly disillusioned about the country’s racial progress. More than 80 percent of Black adults say the legacy of slavery affects their position in America today, including 59 percent who say it affects it a great deal. A plurality of Americans (45 percent) say the country hasn’t gone far enough in fostering the conditions for Black people to enjoy equal rights with Whites. Thirty-nine percent say it’s been about right and 15 percent say the country hasn’t gone too far. Black adults stand on the other side of the chasm and are by far the most likely to say the country hasn’t gone far enough— 78 percent, compared with 37 percent of Whites and 48 percent of Hispanics.

The divisions are most stark when respondents’ political party affiliation is taken into consideration. While 64 percent of White Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the country hasn’t gone far enough in giving Blacks equal rights with Whites, only 15 percent of Republicans and those leaning Republican say the same. About a third of White Republicans (31 percent) say the country has gone too far, compared with five percent of White Democrats.

Prof. Robin Marcus, a Georgetown University Teacher of Writing, said things have gotten worse in recent years. There’s been a “kind of larger acceptance of people’s inclination to hate and be intolerant,” she explained.

She and others said the pervasive and virulent strain of racism that has reared its head since Donald Trump took office is just a reminder of the reality that racism is etched deeply into America’s DNA.

Anti-racism protest march in Maumee, Ohio, Aug. 13, 2017.

“I think this nation has always had a type of White American with a sense that the country belonged to them,” Prof. Marcus said. “They have been inculcated with the belief, in their historical DNA, that this was/is their birthright. There was never any attempt to resist the notion of their right to dominate.

“This feels right and natural to a lot of white people. In fact, in the last few years, there’s been a rising tide all over the world of White people alarmed by the rising tide of blackness. It is the strain of American whiteness that has had enough and found a leader who’s so overtly for them. He’s gotten in the house and opened all the doors.

The Pew study found that majorities of Whites, Blacks and Hispanics say race relations are dismal and many believe they’re getting worse. Those who say race relations are generally bad are particularly pessimistic, with 69 percent of that group saying race relations are getting worse, compared with 30 percent of those who say race relations are generally good.

A majority of Americans – 56 percent – say President Trump has made race relations worse. Further, 15 percent say he has made progress toward improving race relations, 13 percent say he has tried but failed and 14 percent say he has not addressed the issue. Most Blacks, Hispanics and Asians believe that President Trump has made race relations worse, while about half of Whites say the same.

Dr. Shaun R. Harper agreed with Prof. Marcus that the Pew report revealed nothing new.

“I will say that these results do not surprise me but I am disappointed that we’re still here as a nation,” said Dr. Harper, the executive director of the University of California’s Race and Equity Center. “If we think about the segregated lives people live it’s no surprise. There’s not much meaningful racial interaction and most schools are increasingly segregated along race and class lines.”

He said this segregation is a choice for and made by White people. Many Blacks and Latinos don’t have much of a choice because of the vast disparities in race and wealth.

“White people have a choice to not live around other people,” said Dr. Harper, an expert in minorities, gender and higher education. “These are not new phenomenon, they are very longstanding trends and threads that go back to slavery. And they’re not residual but deep-rooted.”

Since ascending to the White House, President Trump has proven to be a full-throated supporter of White nationalism charge critics. His rhetoric and policies are illustrative of his disdain and hatred for Black Americans, Latinos and non-White immigrants. He has the support of former Klan Grand Wizard David Dukes, Neo-Nazis and other White nationalist groups; called Haiti and African countries “shitholes”; described Mexicans as murderers and rapists; caged undocumented immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S.; and has implemented or tried to implement policies designed to punish, block or expel African, Hispanic and other non-whites from America.

Milwaukee native Dr. Ramel Kweku Akyirefi Smith said Black Americans are dealing with the White backlash of an Obama presidency.

“In 2004, people were blown away by Barack Obama when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Some people said we were living in a post-racial society,” said Dr. Smith, a licensed therapist, activist, professor and author. “Before and since he left office, we’ve seen the venom spew out in a very overt and covert manner. No president has gone through what Obama did.

“And now we have Trump. This is where the Hitler brilliance of Donald Trump comes in. He’s not stupid. He tapped into the deepest, darkest parts of Middle America. He played on their fears. He called Mexicans rapists and with every problem, he blames Barack Obama and all the rest of the Black community.” Dr. Smith said President Trump has acted with “deviant brilliance.” “Look what he did to Sister (Rep. IIhan) Omar. His words have led to her life being threatened. He’s constantly changing, causes confusion. He’s done a masterful job. Meanwhile, 95 of 102 judges in circuit court have been filled with White men who think like him. He is slowly turning this democracy into a fascist, authoritarian state,”  he said.

“People emboldened, say things they never would. The president sets the tone. He is loose with the lips, shows no respect, and has engaged in outright criminal behavior, hypocritical behavior. When you have a leader who sets this tone, he unleashes people who wanted to do this all along.”

America, Dr. Smith said, isn’t a country but a corporation, so the idea of Americans fighting for the soul of America is an incorrect analogy.

“This country never had a soul,” he asserted. “If we really are a democracy, would a small group of people run and control everything? Why would we be given people to select for president? This country serves big business and corporations. We’re all modern-day sharecroppers one paycheck from ruin.”

Plessy vs. Ferguson, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, redlining, widespread discrimination, and the state-sanctioned murders of Travyon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Rekia McBride and countless other Black men, women and children, are just some of the roots and by-products of racism, Dr. Smith said.

“But they would point to people like Jay Z and show that they acceded to that level of American society and posterized it to make it seem as if anyone of us could do that,” he said.

Drs. Harper, Smith and Prof. Marcus said it’s imperative that African Americans and their allies use every tool at their disposal to fight back against institutional racism.

“I am an optimist. One of my favorite scholars is Derek Bell, one who is often misunderstood,” Dr. Harper said of Dr. Bell, who is credited with developing the Critical Race Theory. “He talked about the ‘permanence of racism’ thesis—of ordinary, everyday and deeply entrenched racism in all areas of our lives—schools, housing, the way resources are allocated—he argued that we’re stuck with it.

“People misread him as being a pessimist but he talked about where we are and where we have been. Four-to-500 years of evidence shows that this isn’t going to go away soon. Dr. Bell says we have to fight against racism institutionally. Black people have to demand that Whites assume more responsibility for cleaning up the mess they made, and I also think we have to form stronger coalitions with others facing this racism such as underserved groups, such as Pacific Islanders and Latinos.”

The Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins calls himself a pragmatist, but said while he’s troubled by the retrenchment of racism and the animus and anger that accompanies it, he remains optimist, as well.

“Racial issues and animosities are growing. I don’t know how anyone can say otherwise,” said Rev. Harkins, senior vice president for Innovations in Public Programming at Union Theological Seminary. “We’re in a very divided point in history but I’m very optimistic. This is different now than with Obama because people feel emboldened. I think we’ll get on the other side of this but electing someone in 2020 won’t be enough.

There are a lot of ugly sores now laid bare. Fixing this may be generational, it may take much longer,” he sighed. “I think because we’re at a demographic turning point – 2040 – and we’re seeing it now. This is what Trump exploits. We’re seeing a heightened sense of fear and insecurity for people in control. What’s going on at the border represents fear and insecurity unfolding.”

As Whites try to hold onto their power, Rev. Harkins said, retail politics will be a key to reversing the trend.

“The next few years will be telling. We need to have a sense of purpose and resolve and leverage our vote,” said Rev. Harkins, who served as national director of Faith Outreach for the Democratic National Committee, and advised the Obama administration on faith-related issues. “We need to vote for people who appoint judges who understand and are empathetic to the marginalized and disadvantaged. It’s frustrating because it’s sometimes hard to motivate them. It’s amazing that poor and marginalized Whites support politicians and policies that are against their self-interests.

Dr. Smith described racism as “a toxic disease where White people don’t want to understand because they’ve been indoctrinated that way.”

“The system as we know it is dysfunctional, unable to heal itself,” he said. “We’re in a state of inertia. When we’re willing to rise up, then the needle will move. The 1 percent manipulate the rest of us while the real leaders are invisible. America is on an automatic cycle. Weapons, drugs, illegal businesses and human trafficking controls America. We have to recognize the real enemy. What we need to do is build an army but if we’re not willing to sacrifice jobs, titles, material goods, even our lives, we’ll continue to be prisoners of this system.”

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